The end game might be glacially slow, but a cautious Ramaphosa knows the havoc that Zuma can still wreak
If Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma had a strange relationship, the one between Cyril Ramaphosa and Zuma is downright bizarre. Mbeki and Zuma had their own greeting and coded language. There had to be some level of trust in exile and during the negotiations with the National Party.
They understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The breakdown in their relationship was not just political but deeply personal. Zuma has never trusted Ramaphosa. Their career paths were different, with Ramaphosa climbing the ranks of the “inxiles” to become the ANC’s key negotiator during the Codesa talks and constitutional negotiations.
For Zuma, the real skill was behind the scenes and Ramaphosa was simply the ANC’s front man. But he also harboured suspicions about Ramaphosa’s loyalties, which he has now used to poison sentiment against the new ANC leader.
Zuma was not happy when his supporters approached Ramaphosa to be his running mate for the ANC’s 2012 elective conference. But they said Ramaphosa was necessary on the ticket to keep the middle class and investors on side as the Zuma project ploughed on.
Ramaphosa had been reluctant to return to active politics unless he was guaranteed the ANC presidency in 2017. He fell for the ruse that the Zuma camp would rally behind him and he would assume the presidency uncontested.
So from 2012, Ramaphosa had to stomach Zuma and the chaos he created in the ANC and the state. When Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015, Ramaphosa realised how dangerous Zuma had become and stood up to him.
Their relationship progressively deteriorated.
According to current and former ministers, Ramaphosa had to constantly oppose Zuma and his acolytes in cabinet meetings to prevent the Guptas taking further control of the state and of state-owned enterprises.
When Zuma told ANC officials that he intended to fire Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas in March last year, Ramaphosa fought him.
Together with Gwede Mantashe and Zweli Mkhize, he told Zuma that the “intelligence report” he used to make the decision was nonsensical. The spurious report claimed Gordhan and Jonas had conspired with foreign businessmen against the president.
Zuma became deeply resentful and fired them anyway.
From then on, Ramaphosa realised he was in the fight of his life and that Zuma would do everything in his power to prevent him from becoming president.
When the two men sat alongside each other at the ANC conference at Nasrec in December, you would never have guessed the resentment and distrust between them.
Just like in the pictures released by the government this week of the two smiling pleasantly at each other during committee meetings, they were genial and cajoling, even during the tense moments when the results of the ANC presidential race were pending.
Zuma’s expression when Ramaphosa was announced the winner betrayed his real feelings.
On Tuesday evening, the two sat across from each other at Genadendal, the presidential residence in Cape Town, to face the truth of the moment. One has to fall on his sword and the other has to ascend to take his place.
Up to that point, Zuma had been defiant that he would not step down and dared the ANC to do their damnedest to eject him from office. But Zuma eventually realised that the odds were stacked against him and surrendered.
Ramaphosa engaged in negotiations with Zuma knowing full well that the man had told anyone who cared to listen that Ramaphosa was a CIA spy. Yet Ramaphosa maintained that Zuma should not be humiliated and granted him the time he requested to tender his resignation.
From the outside, the protracted negotiations seemed like Ramaphosa was trying to perform a castration with a teaspoon while twirling a hula-hoop. Some people believed that Zuma was leading Ramaphosa by the nose.
In reality, Ramaphosa was trying to close the deal in a way that would allow Zuma to save face. This was to prevent a fightback from Zuma’s supporters, an outbreak of violence in KwaZulu-Natal and further fracturing of the ANC.
Ramaphosa knows that Zuma’s default position is to project himself as a victim, and that he would use his removal to incite further turmoil in the ANC. As ANC leader and the future president of the country, Ramaphosa would rather let Zuma enjoy the trappings of power for a few more days than have to deal with deadly violence, or an ANC breakaway.
The conditions for Zuma’s departure, such as his legal costs and security arrangements, are to make sure that even the president’s diehard supporters would see that he was getting a fair deal.
Any form of pre-prosecution amnesty would be illegal, so Zuma is preparing for a retirement defined by multiple legal battles.
When Ramaphosa finally delivers the 2018 state of the nation address, he will probably be gracious to Zuma and ask the nation to respect him.
But Ramaphosa knows full well how bitter and dangerous Zuma is, and why he needs to be contained in his political afterlife.